Surviving and Thriving After a Stroke Asking “Why Me?” vs. Giving Thanks

27 May

by Vijay Santhanam

John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost this famous line: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” It is with this thought that I share with you how my mind thinks and why I believe that I have regained much more than I have lost with my stroke. I want to focus on “the other side of the coin,” as the phrase goes.
The first thought I could well have got soon after suffering a stroke is, “Why me?” It is a very natural thought. There was no medical reason for it to have happened, yet it happened. Even now, the same thought could be reverberating in my mind and that would have been natural, too. I admit I have thought about this aspect, but only rarely. The fact is that my first thought (upon suffering a stroke) was of recovery and if I had been thinking “why me?” often, I would have been mired. Luckily, I did not and surprisingly, I didn’t even need to make an effort to avoid being caught it in. My focus soon after the stroke, as it is now, is on the recovery and the positives. That has kept me in a virtual cycle of progress.
In management, we use “What if ” scenarios. “What if I had not suffered a stroke?” is of course a scenario but it happened in reality, and, as I said earlier, there was no point ruing it. Let us look at other scenarios –what if I had not got the kind of doctor, hospital and therapists, what if I had not got the kind of support from family and friends, what if I could not have afforded the medical care? There are several more “what if ” scenarios I can paint but I want to stay on the last one – affordability, for a bit longer.
One of my all-time favourite quotes is a stanza by William Blake and it is so appropriate and relevant here:
Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to endless night.
I could have been born to a slum dweller in one of the cities of the world or been a poor villager without formal education. And, I could have been the sole breadwinner of my impoverished family, who would have been starving from day two of my stroke, forget about medical care for me. If you think of the distribution of income in the world, the odds of this scenario is much higher than what I have been blessed with. If this is not luck, then what else is it?
I can make a very long list of what I can’t do because of my stroke. But I can guarantee you that the list of what I have regained and what I can still do is a much longer one. I retired at forty-four, a year earlier than I wanted and planned for, and I am doing many enjoyable things – spending quality time with my wonderful family, writing, teaching and leading a great lifestyle. What else can one ask for?
Recently I was asked what I thought of God and spirituality in regard to my stroke – why it happened, did He help in my recovery and so on. As I wrote earlier, I had two things in my hospital room to give me inspiration – an idol of Ganapati (Ganesh) and a note from Sachin Tendulkar. Ganapati is the symbol of God in my mind. I do get inspiration and encouragement from Him, but I have an interesting “deal” with Him:
1. I do not ask why some sad/bad things happen in my life.
2. I do not ask for any specific help.
3. I only thank for whatever I have been given.
Even if we think the universe is orderly, i.e. the concept of ‘cosmos’, from time to time, great calamities occur, often naturally. Some people wonder why God doesn’t stop such events from occurring. My view is that He has a million things to manage. Perhaps, in the broader scheme things of the cosmos, some collateral damage is inevitable. In that context, I believe it would be exceedingly small or even silly of me to ask, ‘Err, excuse me, I am Vijay Santhanam from earth of the Milky Way. I suffered a stroke. Could you please help me understand why it happened? Oh, while at it, could you help me in my recovery?’“Why me”, “unfair” and such thoughts could start a vicious cycle in the mind leaving me depressed and very likely overwhelm my family and close friends too. Thanking God for whatever I have got – “Thank God I am still alive”, “Thank God I can still use my left hand” is the gratitude that starts a virtual cycle, taking me to higher level of recovery. And that helps me to be happy and I can even inspire others. Luck, in my view, is an attitude. My deal with God is consistent with that.
There is another practical reason why not to ask for anything specific. Suppose God listens to every prayer and grants us a good proportion of what we ask for. It is only fair that when He does grant it, He limits it to the extent we ask for, not more. Further, suppose I believed in asking specific favours and prayed for that. What would I have asked for soon after my stroke on languages? Perhaps: “God, please grant me an ability to read, write and speak again.” But, not in my wildest dreams would I have asked, “Grant me the ability to be an author and a professor.” That was an unasked-for bonus.
It is a positive attitude that triggers the virtual cycle of trying for more and managing to do more. I have no time or energy to waste on “why it happened” because I have to focus on what next I can do – more, bigger, better. I always have been inspired by what Leo Burnett, a legend in the advertising world said once, ‘When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.’
Three years after my stroke, Dr. Tang and I were chatting on my recovery. ‘Given everything,’ he said, ‘I would say that you have perhaps recovered enough to be at 75% of your original brain power.’ His tone was neither despondent nor encouraging – it was matter of fact. I simply nodded; I sensed that his thought had not been completed. He continued, ‘Remember, 75% of your brain power is better than what most people have in the first place.’ I talked of “what if ” scenarios earlier but didn’t cover the biggest one – I could have died! Stroke is the second leading cause of death worldwide, after heart attack. Forget everything else, the biggest factor is that I survived! If that is not luck, then what is it? Luck has been written about endlessly; in my view, luck is, above all, an attitude. Life deals you a set of cards; how you play them is up to you. To read more about my story, see my book, My Stroke of Luck.




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